Paying the piper: Art in an age of elite capital

Ben Eltham


In the shimmering heat of the Persian Gulf, a number of rather expensive buildings are taking shape.

On the island of Saadiyat, alongside the glittering hotels and shopping centres, a largely foreign workforce is constructing colonial outposts for some of the most famous cultural and educational institutions on the planet: the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University.

Saadiyat Island is in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The Saadiyat Island Cultural District, announced in 2007, has a budget of $27 billion, and is planned to be the largest mixed-use development in the Persian Gulf. The Saadiyat Louvre has been promised Picassos and Magrittes; it will feature collaboration not just with the Louvre but with the Pompidou and the Musee d’Orsay. The Guggenheim will have 13,000 square metres of exhibition space.

According to the Saadiyat’s website, the centrepiece of the cultural precinct will be a local institution, the Zayed National Museum. It is dedicated to the founding Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. “Fittingly elevated above the rest of the cultural district at its highest point,”1 the website informs us, “the museum tells the story of the region’s history and the unification of the United Arab Emirates through the life and person of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, father of the nation.” The design of the Zayed Museum, by serial architecture competition winner Norman Foster, features gorgeous sails planned to soar like a falcon’s wings; Sheikh Zayed’s favourite hobby was falconry.

The art galleries and university campuses that will be built here will be in one of the richest, but also one of the most corrupt and despotic nations in the world. The United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is a constituent polity, is a federation of hereditary, absolute monarchies.

There is only the barest semblance of democracy: the President and Vice-President are chosen by the rulers of the seven emirates; the Federal National Council, which is not a real legislature but rather an advisory body, is half-elected, and half-appointed. It doesn’t make laws. In the most recent elections in 2011, only approximately 7,000 people were allowed to vote.

While the UAE is among the more liberal regimes in the Arabian peninsula – it’s not Saudi Arabia, after all – it is a long way from a liberal democracy. Basic human rights, especially labour rights, are lacking. Trade unions are illegal, strikes are met with police crackdowns, and strike leaders are arrested. Political parties are outlawed. Local media are either muzzled or self-censored. Bloggers have been imprisoned. In July this year, the Federal Supreme Court sentenced 69 Emirati dissidents to prison. The charges were trumped up claims about aiming to overthrow the government. Human Rights Watch reports that the judicial process – a mass trial – was “marred by violations of fair trial standards, including credible allegations that the defendants endured torture in pre-trial detention.”3

The workers building the new cathedrals of modern art experience conditions that resemble the factory workers of Dickensian England or the sharecroppers of the American south. Most of them are foreign labourers imported from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Labour unions in Abu Dhabi are almost non-existent, safety standards are lax, and passports are routinely confiscated by employers, creating a pool of essentially indentured labour. Workplace injuries and deaths are common.

Labour conditions are most notorious in neighbouring Qatar, where the World Cup stadiums are costing the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of migrant labourers, but the workers building the Louvre and Guggenheim are little safer or better paid. In a recent article on Saadiyat for Vice, Molly Crabapple visited the labour camps where these migrants live. She reported salaries range between $US150-300 a month and that bosses continue to retain workers’ passports. When she attempted to talk to workers in a marketplace, secret police arrested them.4

Saadiyat Island is an excellent place to begin any discussion of global art markets, because it expresses the uncomfortable power of money to control and discipline the field. Like the suicidal teenagers that built my iPhone, Saadiyat is a spiky reminder that the dreams of beauty and transcendence sold to us in museums are also global commodities, as utterly reliant on the free flow of footloose global capital as they are on the exploitation of the indigent and desperate.

Art markets are sleek, sexy and glamorous. They are also perfect examples of the late modern capitalism that characterises our age, an observation as true today as in 1989, when Frederic Jameson first defined postmodernism as the “cultural logic” of that economic system. If anything, art markets are among the most unequal and neoliberal of all international markets, rivalling the “dark pools” of unregulated hedge funds in their riskiness, opacity and aggressive greed.

If you think that discussing art galleries in Abu Dhabi seems strangely irrelevant to visual art in Australia in 2014, perhaps you weren’t paying attention to the single most important political event in Australian art this year: the boycott against the Sydney Biennale and the Transfield Foundation, which briefly but importantly convulsed the Australian art world for several months at the beginning of this year.

On the face of it, the nascent labour movement on Saadiyat Island and the Transfield boycott have little in common. One is the utterly prosaic struggle against workforce oppression. The other has been widely ridiculed as counter-productive symbolism that will do nothing to alleviate the suffering of refugees detained in Australia’s immigration jails. To quote Helen Razer on the issue, “that artists suppose this symbolic act will have a social end they can control is evidence they have lost sight of the limits, and the great possibilities, of art.”5

It is not the purpose of this essay to rehash the arguments for and against the Transfield boycott; I am on the record elsewhere as arguing that it was both valid and successful in its proximate goal of drawing attention to the rampant injustices at play in Australia’s Pacific gulags.6

What the Transfield boycott does represent, I’d like to suggest, is that the cosy neoliberal consensus of the art world – that money is a necessary evil for facilitating the expression of great art – may be breaking down. Artists and cultural workers are questioning the structural inequalities implied by the operation of money in their art form.

“Neoliberalism” is a much-abused term, but if any definition has been accepted, it may be that money becomes the single and only measure of all value in a market, a society, and even an art form. Of all the arts, including movies, the visual arts have moved farthest along this axis.

It’s not a coincidence that global art markets are organised around superstar artists, big-name dealers and gallerists, ultra-rich collectors, fairs, festivals and markets. As economists and sociologists such as Don Thompson7 and Sarah Thornton8 have established, global art markets are both sui generis cultural industries with unique practices and customs and utterly characteristic global industries composed of commodities, assets and exchanges. This is an industry where Damien Hirst can issue an Initial Public Offering for his latest batch of mediocre butterflies and in which the key sites of global exchange are New York, London, Basle and Miami Beach.

As in any market, power relationships count for more than the disciples of free markets would have us believe. Indeed, the global contemporary art market is among the least transparent of any commodity. It is a market in which the people who decide the price of an artwork, the people who acquire and culturally validate artworks at public institutions, and the people who stand to benefit from ever-rising auction values, are too often one and the same. The best example may be the Mugrabi family, which has been uncannily successful in cornering the world market for Warhols, but even in Australia there are all sorts of market distortions and outright rorts that, in other industries, would constitute grounds for action by competition authorities and corporate regulators.

Leaving aside the irregularities and the cosy relationships, the inequality of the system is undeniable. The give-away remains the power that very wealthy individuals hold on the art world, both abroad and in Australia. Take Simon Mordant, for instance, the “commissioner” (read: benefactor) of Australia’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Mordant is certainly no mean collector,9 with a taste for the emerging and the contemporary that would make many a state gallery director jealous.

Mordant is also, not to put too fine a point on it, filthy rich. A merchant banker, he amassed a fortune after the boutique investment firm he founded, Caliburn, was bought out for $180 million by Wall Street bank Greenhill in 2010.10 The Australia Council itself describes him as an expert in “mergers & acquisitions, corporate restructuring, and capital optimisation.”11

At Caliburn and Greenhill, Mordant was involved in the financial engineering behind some very big mining ventures. According to its website, Greenhill has advised Lihir Gold, a gold miner with a questionable environmental record in Papua New Guinea,12 as well as Coal and Allied Industries in a takeover by Rio Tinto.

In the seamless web of high finance and high art that characterises Australian public art museums, Mordant has used his fortune to become one of the most influential figures in the arts. He is the Chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a director of the ABC, the Sydney Theatre Company, and Opera Australia, as well as retaining influential roles at international art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate.

The glaring incongruities of the art world become obvious in graphic juxtaposition when comparing Mordant – a “very high net-wealth” merchant banker – with the artist he will take to Venice next year: Fiona Hall.

Hall’s work is viscerally anti-capitalist.13 She has consistently mounted a trenchant critique of the role of money in fostering war and destroying the environment. And yet Hall’s work will feature in an Australian pavilion co-funded by Mordant to the tune of $2 million. Nothing could better exemplify the conspiracy of silence between the substance of contemporary art, and the power structures that disseminate and exhibit it.

Art thrives on the dreams of the ambitious and hopeful. For decades, the discomforting realities of the increasingly marginal and exploitative nature of the visual arts industry have been papered over by the breathless excitement of the trinkets and decorations. While art movements come and go, from institutional critique to relational aesthetics, the underlying reality of an opaque, unequal and exploitative industry controlled by a handful of billionaire collectors has been airbrushed away, often with the acquiescence of government-funded gallery directors and curators. In the warm glow of the free wine at vernissage, it’s easy to forget that the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales earns nearly half a million dollars a year (more than the Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court)14 while half of all visual artists earn less than $10,000.15

It’s for this reason that the Australian arts establishment (and it is an establishment) reacted so savagely to the Transfield boycott. Arts Minister George Brandis was apoplectic, suggesting that artists and festivals boycotting such corporate sponsors should lose their public funding.16 Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull berated artists for their “vicious ingratitude”.17 The Biennale’s director, Juliana Engberg – herself a veteran climber of the greasy pole of Australian arts administration – noted primly that “I would hope we can provide a platform for discussion rather than see a call to limit the artist’s participation.”18 In general, the private view of many arts administrators I spoke to was one of disdain or even anger for the boycotters, who were seen as unsophisticated and troublesome at best, and at worst, a threat to badly needed corporate sponsorship.

The sad truth is that arts administrators and curators are inevitably complicit in the patronage they rely on. Far more than they like to admit, they need the captains of industry, not just for their money, but for their social prestige and their political influence. In a society in which top executives have much better access to ministers and prime ministers than artists or curators, the presence of a Simon Mordant or a James Strong on the board of an institution can make all the difference when it comes to that next big funding push. Like the labour unions illegally organising on Sadiyaat Island, actions like the Transfield boycott threaten that relationship, because they threaten the neoliberal power structure that underlies it. That’s why they generate such reaction.

The Transfield boycott did not free the refugees. The dispossessed seeking shelter on our shores remain locked up in suicidal hell-holes, where no arts boycott can rescue them.

But the boycott was not pointless. Significant debate ensued about the value and role of corporate money in art. A sponsor departed; a board member stepped down. If the boycott encouraged even a few visual artists to reflect on the structural inequalities and injustices of their chosen craft, it may represent the beginnings of a new resistance. That, in itself, would be no small victory.


1. Zayed National Museum, accessed 23 August 2014.

2. Saadiyat Cultural District, accessed 23 August 2014.

3. Human rights watch, World report 2014, United Arab Emirates, accessed 23 August 2014.

4. Molly Crabapple ‘Slaves of happiness island Abu Dhabi and the dark side of high art’ in Vice, accessed 4 August 2014.

5. Helen Razer, ‘Sydney Biennale: artists divide over dirty money’, in Daily review, powered by Crikey, accessed 23 August 2014.

6. See Ben Eltham, Biennale boycott backlash: vicious ingratitude or valid critique? In Artshub, accessed 23 August 2014.

7. Don Thompson, The $12 million stuffed shark: the curious economics of contemporary art, (Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2008).

8. See Sarah Thornton, 7 days in the art world, (London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008).

9. Carrie Miller, Simon & Catriona Mordant: fortune and philanthropy, in Art Collectorissue 46, (October/December 2008), accessed 23 August 2014.

10. Dealbook, Greenhill buys Australian advisor Caliburn, accessed 23 August 2014.

11. Australia Council for the Arts, The commissioner, accessed on 26 August 2014.

12. Elizabeth McKinnon, ‘The environmental effects of mining waste disposal at Lihir Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea’ in Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health  Vol. 1, Issue 2, (2002), 40-50.

13. Heide Museum of Modern Art, Fiona Hall Big game hunting, accessed 23 August 2014.

14. See Ben Eltham, ‘The superstar economics of gallery directors’ in Crikey, accessed 23 August 2012.

15. David Throsby and Anita Zednik, Do you really expect to get paid? An economic study of professional artists in Australia. Commissioned by the Australian Council for the Arts, accessed 23 August 2014.

16. Chris Kenny, Sydney Biennale ‘shame’ risks funding, says George Brandis, The Australian, accessed 23 August 2012.

18. Raymond Gill, ‘Juliana Engberg: why spectacular need not be dumb’, in Crikey, accessed 23 August 2014.

Ben Eltham writes regularly about Australian politics and culture for a range of outlets. He is ArtsHub's Industry Columnist and a Research Fellow at Deakin...


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